The author’s name first attracted me to this book. Surely she was a Welsh woman? On investigation, however, I found the her to be an Australian. Oh well, dim ots, that made the book a possibility for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Everyone was talking about it – a debut novel, such an interesting topic, so richly imagined. I confess to an interest in medieval monasticism. I have no illusions about my suitability for such a life. But something about the silence and the simple rhythms calls to me. I put my name down on the library reservation list and prepared to wait my turn.
The book when it arrived had a visual appeal. An interesting prologue illustrated the reason for the swallow depicted on the cover. Using the metaphor of a jongleur, the Swallow, who had fallen when learning to tumble and broken his nose with his own knee, Sarah, the Anchoress says
“Here [In my cell], like Swallow, I was body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear, and I thought I had what I wanted
“I didn’t know then that I had landed on hard ground and broken my bones with my own body.”
Having watched her mother and sister suffer in childbirth, Sarah, daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, has always sought a life apart. Having secured a wealthy patron she is nailed into her Anchorhold on Faiths’ Day, 6th October, 1255. Her purpose being to pray for her patron and the people of the village in which she has been enclosed. Sarah has her rule to guide her and two maids from the village to care for her physical needs. Father Peter, a wise elderly priest from the local priory, is her confessor. But Father Peter’s health is failing and when he is replaced by a younger more physically able priest, his gentle counsel is withdrawn.
I had been told in hushed tones that this book was set entirely within the few square feet of Anchorhold. This didn’t impress me overly. With memories and flashback an author can inhabit a number of different worlds. This potential was not wasted on Cadwallader. Through Sarah’s viewpoint we get a strong sense of the surrounding village, her past life, and the threat posed by her one time suitor and now patron, Sir Thomas.
Cadwallader also uses the third person viewpoint of Father Ranaulf, Sarah’s replacement confessor. Through him we see the corruptions and the preoccupations of the medieval monastic life. We learn how women were viewed by the church in this era (not pretty reading).
Cadwallader’s initial impetus for writing this novel grew out of her PhD research into the life of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin who was raped and tormented by the man she refused to marry. When Father Ranaulf is commissioned to write St Margaret’s story for Sarah, he sees it as a chance to instruct her. But as the events of her life unfold and as Ranulf is drawn into the secrets surrounding the other women who have lived in the Anchorhold, the story becomes a powerful metaphor for male power and injustice.
The Anchoress is a literary novel full of subtle imagery and hidden meaning. Despite it’s exposure of corruption and injustice, it is also a book about faith and about making small but powerful shifts in order to survive. By the end of the book both Sarah and Father Ranaulf have changed. Their eventual actions may not satifsfy the sensibilities of a modern reader – why the hell is she still shut away from the world? – but they are true to the era and the prevailing belief system and therefore satisfy on a different level.